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Sunday, June 26, 2016

A huge squash harvest

How happy can a huge first harvest from your very own garden make you. Anyone who has grown food in their backyard gardens know the happy feeling. That is me today. Bright and beautiful harvest of lots of summer squash...makes me merry. It was my second harvest from garden today of this lovely vegetable. The first harvest was done two days earlier.
Summer squash for me was easy to grow, resisted pest problems and grew fast. It proved to be such an ideal crop for someone with no green thumb. I cannot eat them all and am planning to share some with friends. Hopefully, they can grill, saute or bake this summer delicacy this coming 4th of July weekend (healthy eating anyone?) . I will.

Happy Gardening.

Summer harvest..lettuce, cilantro and squash

Cocozella di Napoli (an Italian heirloom summer squash)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Stay healthy and keep gardening

As rewarding as gardening is, it can also be hard. Many gardening activities require us to bend our neck and back. What happens when you constantly put your body in incorrect posture ? The neck and back vertebrae may lose their curvature, or you may get a pinched nerve in cervical or lumbar region. Makes me think if gardening is really a healthy profession. Unless one is using all mechanized machines, bending and manual work are hard to avoid. Instead of saying "It's part of the job and if I can't do it, I am not fit for farming", correcting things and taking care of oneself should be done intently to be our best selves. In every profession, there are times and situations which take a toll on our bodies. Slowing down to think what can be done to minimize the stress on body without missing the things we love to do, should as much be a priority as the profession itself.

The thing that is hard to escape while working in a garden or farm is the bending involved. Seeding - bend, digging- bend, lay plastic mulch manually- bend, weeding - bend more. This happens more in a garden that is new and was never used before. Weeds and grass in first year in such a garden take over the land in no time.

Injury, aches and sprains can be avoided/minimized by taking certain measures in addition to giving your body a rest. While working long hours outside already burns calories, other forms of activities are needed to keep one's body in a good shape. Sitting in a slouched position in front of a TV with a chilled beer in hand while resting from outdoor activity isn't doing any good to your body (I am not saying don't drink chilled beer). Keeping your body fit for work requires a bit more effort. A daily routine of exercises like pilates or yoga does wonders to the entire body. An hour of these exercises after an intense day of work in the garden or farm is a good daily practice. Additionally, summers are a good time to take an evening stroll after a hard day of garden work. Walking keeps spine supple.

And for the sun..... I prefer working early mornings or late evenings. Mornings are peaceful, evenings are cool and refreshing. This is not just to avoid sun tan. Tanning is not my problem, sun-burn and rashes resulting from it, is. Skin is our largest organ and it takes the most burn from everything we expose ourselves to. I prefer to cover my head while working in hot sun. If we do however decide to work in the afternoons, keeping oneself hydrated is a must. I am sensitive to sun and get headaches when exposed to direct sunlight for more than an hour (as much as I love beaches, I can't enjoy much at a beach on sunny days). Hence, I try hard to protect myself from strong sunlight whenever (and however) possible. Protective clothing is a must even if we slather sunscreen like mayonnaise on face and neck. This pair of work gloves I purchased an year ago worked extremely well for me. Most stores do not sell gloves for small hands. Not all of us like to wear gloves while working in the garden. The touch of soil feels nice to hands. I agree. I wear gloves to keep hands a little clean especially if I am handling perlite, lime or neem oil.

Is there a way to avoid the constant bending for long hours everyday ? Depends on the kind of garden and frequency of tasks involved. Permanent raised beds may prove better for one's back than sowing directly in soil. I do not have the raised beds.  (I didn't want to build permanent immovable structures at this time) While doing most of my garden chores that involve bending, I prefer to sit cross-legged on a mat than stooping over in an arched position. It is an easy position and does not put strain on my knees and back. (The mat saves me from ant bites) I do this while seeding too. For tasks like seeding, having a table that is waist height or above to keep the materials will avoid bending over repeatedly to fill soil in seed trays. Buying a stool is another good option to support back and knees. Most plastic stools break from your own weight. Some stools, like the one I brought here, are robust, move easily and have a little storage space for tools. However, they are hard to assemble and when fully assembled, have a height which is too high (Except maybe sitting on the stool and doing pruning or watering).

Remaining healthy and strong is something we all must consciously practice as a life long habit. Our ability to do things that we love depends on how much our bodies can support. Poor posture for a period of time leads to conditions in which pain management remains the only option. Taking care of the body is a prevention that is better than wandering for a cure.

What do you do when you work outside for long hours ? I would love to hear thoughts.

Stay strong, healthy and enjoy all that summer has to offer.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Lettuce love and summer crops growing in the garden

Lettuce is a lovely and versatile crop. One of the first crops to be harvested in early summer, lettuce adds that crunch to an everyday dinner salad. Lettuce and cilantro are the two crops I could harvest so far. To anyone that grows food in their backyard, the first harvest of crops is so exciting. It is the result of your hard labor. The first harvest becomes a delicacy in that sense.

I transplanted lettuce in the ground around April 24, 2016. The young seedlings were surprisingly hardy in fluctuating weather of early summer. Winds, rain, took it all. I grew a french heirloom variety of butterhead lettuce, the seeds of which were organic. I made sure I grew the lettuce without the use of any harmful chemicals. When dry spells of summer winds started in May, I found some pests hovering around the lettuce. Spraying a home based insecticidal soap solution was the only thing that I used twice in last 40 days before harvesting lettuce. The solution worked pretty well and stopped pest infestation before it becomes unmanageable. I read online quite a lot when I need help on certain topics. One common argument I often come across is that using insecticidal soap solution is not entirely organic since soap itself is synthetic. I agree. However, I think it is better than store brought organic sprays and protects your crop from pests damage pretty well. As a beginning farmer, it would have been disheartening to loose all of your crop to pests. Some cultural or biological control has to be done if pests are imminent. Some measures, like growing a variety of flora around your garden, are wonderful ways to attract beneficial insects that eat the bad bugs but it takes time to implement a garden rich in diversity. If pests damage is happening now, one can't wait for beneficial flowers to bloom and parasitic wasps to come and pray the bad bugs. Spot treatments have to be done sometimes. It is also important to understand that stressed out plants suffer more damage than healthy ones. Stress, it seems, is bad for every living being, plants and humans included.

Covering young plants with a row cover or tulle also protects them from insects and birds. In my garden however, I am still in the process of building infrastructure to have a set up for all row covers on every vegetable. My focus will be to provide row covers or netting for brassica crops first before anything else.

I transplanted 22 eggplants today in a new bed and a few Hungarian Heart tomatoes in another bed yesterday. I could only plant 8 Okra seeds out of 30 that I seeded. Blame it on poor germination and a probably a few human errors of sowing deep and watering unevenly.

A challenging and beautiful root crop that I planted in pot this year was Ginger. Ginger is less famous in kitchens than garlic. However, it is an extremely nutritious root, is used widely in teas and adds a little heat when put in curries and Asian stir-fry vegetables. I use ginger generously in my morning tea and in many other recipes.  While ginger is a tropical root and cannot be grown on land here in zone 6 of northeast USA, I wanted to learn to grow this root crop in home. I started researching about growing ginger in home and what it needs for an optimal growth. There is very little literature available for growing ginger in USDA zone 6. I had a hard time finding anything about growing ginger in university publications of Rutgers, Cornell and other universities in the east coast. It seems not many commercial scale small farms, even those with greenhouses, grow ginger for the market. While stores stock up local produce in summer, there is absolutely no locally grown ginger that supermarkets stock.

I purchased an organic ginger root from store, washed it and put it in the potting soil in a big pot on March 21, 2016. The shoots started coming up in a few weeks. Since ginger requires lots of sun and warm weather to grow, I had to keep the pot outside in shaded sunlight everyday until harvest. Protecting the potted ginger from winds can be a challenge. There were many sunny and windy days in summer that required extra caution when placing the ginger pot outside. Ginger takes around 10 months to mature. I harvested in November which was too early harvest. I got very little additional root growth.

Summer is exciting. Seeds are out in the garden, the weather and growing conditions are yet to decide the successes and failures ahead.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Everyone is out in the sun..including the critters and a turtle

The lost turtle
It's summer here and I am loving it. The squash, onions, garlic, lettuce, cabbage and fenugreek are all growing well. Yesterday, out of nowhere, I had this little visitor on my property. Came from nowhere. I thought it would go away on itself but I discovered this morning it was still wandering like a lost kid. So I picked it up from the driveway and put it near a little stream which flows by my property. Hopefully, it will find it's way.

With summer, the plants, grass and weeds are getting a chance to soak the sunlight. Since my land was a grass lawn earlier, the grass on bare areas like paths between beds and fence edges, grows fast. Yesterday evening, I picked up my grass trimmer and cut the grass near my corn plants. Today, I covered the area I cleared yesterday with cardboard. The corn is growing tall and I removed the row cover over it today. Clearing the grass and covering that area with cardboard will prevent more grass seeds from filling the corn bed. While in earlier weeks of last month, I spent a lot of time doing hand-weeding, I figured it wasn't feasible for me during the heat of the summer. The grass takes over fast, especially on land where cover crops have never been grown. So, the grass trimmer. A portion of my garden is covered with cardboard mulch and the rest will be covered with plastic mulch in next few days. The grass is too big to lay the mulch directly without trimming it.

Critters are something that were unexpected and invaded my spinach plants.
Ugly aphids
Green aphids underneath leaves

A little powdery mildew on squash leaves
  I prepared my own insecticidal soap mixture and sprayed on the young spinach leaves to kill the ugly black and green aphids. I only did it once last week. This week, I just used a strong mist of water to clean the leaves of spinach.  While it did control the aphid population, some damage to leaves is already done. I am not expecting much spinach growth because the aphids have made many leaves curly and yellowish which is beyond repair. I also purchased Neem oil from Home Depot to use as spray in case my home-made insecticidal spray does not work. I haven't used the oil for insects but will use it on squash leaves to get rid of powdery mildew. The spinach was direct seeded on the bed. The aphids and other pests lie dormant inside the soil and emerge when food is available. Buggers ! I will try growing spinach again in fall this year. I planted some mint and basil near the spinach beds yesterday. Mint is supposed to repel insects as they don't like it's smell.

I have planted a lot of wildflowers all along the edges of the fence. The wildflowers attract beneficial pests and butterflies that pray on the harmful pests. The wildflowers have not yet bloomed in my garden. For now, the damage control had to be done manually. I noticed in my garden that aphids have also taken over many of the Lambsquarters weed plants (that are everywhere in the garden). The issue with removing them by hands is that the ants, which are aphid lovers, crawl on your hands quickly while you remove the Lambsquarters weed. Eww !!

Inside the hoophouse, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbages, onions and strawberries are growing in trays. They are far from being transplanted yet, especially, the slow growing Alexandria Strawberries.

More to come in coming weeks. Let me know your feedback in comments below.

Happy Gardening.